...The Problem with Ernesto, p.3

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During my two weeks back at Gretchen s, Claire dropped by for supper. While we were sitting in the kitchen, she suddenly looked up, said, re going now, and hustled me out the door. She then told me a long story about a friend of hers who once started speaking in Aramaic, and she didn t want the same thing to happen to me. I told her sure, well, whatever.

What s following you? she asked me a few days later.

Huh? I said, intelligently.

There s a black shadow about three feet behind you, everywhere you go. It s not good, she said.

Dunno, I replied. Maybe it s the brutal occurence that Dr. Susan took off my head when she gave me that massage. I had recently swapped bodywork with our resident neurotic homeopath; her version of massage was more like frontal assault, which she concluded by shrieking out of the room, dosing the both of us with Rescue Remedy, and announcing that I had been beaten violently about the head in a medieval lifetime by a jealous lover. Which could be true.

Whatever it is, it s not you, but it s trying to get said Claire. Forthwith we decided to have a séance, to find out what the hell it wanted.

We researched methods of circle casting and psychic protection on the Internet, and convinced seven women to take part. Claire started in with a speech that resembled an indictment in a court of law.

We are here this evening because someone is being followed by a presence. This entity burned a journal; it teased the house sitter; we intend to contact the entity and find out why it is here. We went round the circle, each earnestly assuring the ghost that we came in peace and meant no harm. Nothing happened, except that the cat knocked a papier-maché puppet of a devil s head onto the floor. I put it into the circle.

Why did you do that? asked Claire.

Because the last time I came home, that thing came tumbling down the stairs all by itself, I said. I think it s trying to tell us something.

We sat there for a long time. One of the decorative flags hanging from the ceiling started blowing, as though in a strong draft, directly over the circle. Carla started giggling. It was a weird giggle, not a nervous, isn t-this-séance-thing-stupid sort of giggle, but a genuine sinister chuckle.

I hear you say, s funny, said Carla, but there more. Several other people started laughing, too, in the same creepy way. We sat there some more. Carla s head drooped farther and farther down her chest, and she started twitching in a very un-Carla-like way. s funny, she declared. Long silence. Then Carla sat up. s in the paintings, she said. The story is in the paintings.

We all looked around at Gretchen s paintings, all over the room. The eyes are all the same. And the mouths. And the cheekbones. And the nose. It s the same face. We broke the circle and started roaming all over the house, looking at paintings. There were decapitated heads, heads in cages, people wearing masks, sprouting wings, doubled up on themselves, tortured and twisted in approved surrealist manner, but it was all the same face; a Spanish white male, one green eye and one brown, with fleshy lips, broad nose, and high cheekbones.

Here it is again! And here, and here! people exclaimed, examining the dinner table with exploding body parts, the beach scene with acrobats, the portraits of abstracted imaginary people. Meanwhile, Carla was talking at me with a slightly manic gleam in her eye.

It wants to use you to express something, and I don think that s a good thing, she said, urgently. I don t think he s very nice.

Here, come here, this one is really creepy, said Kathleen. By the door was a tiny canvas, about 3 , with no less than five portraits of the same man. He was sitting in a chair in a red room, his back to us, reading a paper on which his portrait appeared. Climbing the wall was a shadow, growing into a head, holding a book showing the same face, while on the wall was the largest portrait of all. This is it, this is what happening in this house, she said.

While the circle was broken I noticed that the flapping flag was still, although the candles were still lit. We had a snack, then circled up again. The floor where I was sitting is all hot, said Veronica. We put Carla on the hot spot. The flag started blowing around like crazy.

This time, several people started talking at once. in a room, very small, like a cell, the walls are wet and dripping, birds go past a little window high above. I am Spanish, born in Mexico, I like to eat and drink and laugh, but I feel guilty, I hate the Spanish, I hate what I am. I wrote against them, or maybe I just wanted to. So many people died. m split. Am I the jailer or the revolutionary?

Suddenly Carla started to cry. There was a fire, we all ran out of the house, the writings were discovered, they could still be read, she said. We all pestered her with questions.

Who are you? What s your name? Did you kill people? Were you the executioner? Were you the revolutionary writer? Did you have a family?

You can call me Ernesto, said Carla, wryly. I don know who I am. I had a wife. What happened to her? What do you think? You can call the writer Christian. Did my wife have an affair with him? That an interesting theory.

Tortuously, we squeezed information out of Carla/Ernesto, until he seemed to get tired and went away. By then it was one A.M. and everybody s knees were stiff.

Are you going to be all right, sleeping here alone? they asked me, as they donned their coats and headed cheerfully for the door.

Yeah, I ll be fine, I said, phlegmatically. I only had two more nights before Gretchen returned, and cheap real estate always has its drawbacks, as most artists know. I d spent the last ten years living in ghettos with pipe bombs going off in the intersection and SWAT teams storming the neighbor s house, and figured that one ghost was a small price to pay.

That night indeed was fine. The next night wasn t.

When the first thumping noise happened, in the corner of my bedroom at about 3 A.M., I sat up and checked for cats. Both of them were sleeping, innocently and quietly, at the foot of the bed. Stop it, Ernesto, I need some sleep, I growled, and flopped over again. After a period of confused, dire dreams, I half woke up again, to find a vortex in my face. It was about two feet high, like a small tornado, above my pillow next to my left cheek. Maybe it was just a fly, although Claire later told me that it was just like the one she d seen behind my head, the night she came over for dinner. I smacked at it and it dispersed. Then I looked up at the mirror over my dressing table; it had turned into something from Alice in Wonderland, Tenniel s illustrations specifically. It had bulging eyes, long teeth, hair, and a mustache, and was grimacing wildly at me. I lifted my head and gnashed back. It turned back into a mirror. I started giving Ernesto what for.

Listen, you old bastard, there is a thirteen-year-old girl moving into this house tomorrow, you are NOT to pull any of this shit with her around, how dare you be so inconsiderate, I told him. The rest of the night passed in a sort of astral haze, halfway between nightmare and physical struggle. I boarded the all-night bus for the border with bags under my eyes, thinking that perhaps I should stop doing business with Gretchen already.

I didn t hear any more news of Ernesto until mid-June. Laurie went back to Canada in May, unscathed, but Gretchen decided to stay, and stay, and stay, grabbing random people in the streets of Guanajuato and informing them that they had been selected to buy thousand-dollar paintings of hers so she could pay the rent. Finally she called me. You need to send me three months rent right now, she said. My patron stiffed me and I m broke.

Okay, what s your bank account number? I asked, calmly.

I don t know. You can call me back. I m never home and m not using the answering machine, so keep calling. I don t use email.

Everything all right with the ghost? I asked.

Oh yeah, he s gone. The night before they came I didn get a wink of sleep, it was like...heat or something, so when they got here I went upstairs to take a nap, and passed out. I had this dream that I was having a dinner party; I went to the stove, and it was all black and there were these charred body parts all over it. I said, gosh, I sorry I have to serve you this, that s all there is, and plunked them on the table. Then when I woke up it was all over, and Claire said, by the way, he wasn t beheaded like we thought, he burned to death. I guess this was his way of saying goodbye.

I was pretty annoyed that my friends held an exorcism in my house and didn t even TELL me. When I finally got hold of Claire she said sorry, it was just her and Veronica, because nobody else would go back. Claire didn t want to either, but something nagged at her until she did.

The first thing that Claire did was to go to several priests. They said yeah, there s a lot of ghost trouble in town, the Inquisition murdered a lot of people. They told her there were tunnels connecting all the churches, and when they decided someone was a heretic they used to clap him in the dungeons, before executing him in one of the public plazas.

Oh, that s the door in the floor! I interrupted. I was touring a church once with a guest, who asked me what the hinges on the chapel floor might mean. That s where they put the heretics, d said, joking.

Anyway, the priests were sympathetic, but said that exorcism was against Catholic dogma, or something. So she found a teacher of hers who knew a lot about Native American ritual, and together they went to ask Ernesto if they could try to help him. He must have said yes, because they went back the next morning and cast a triangle. Veronica leaped around the room, raising energy, while Claire sat in the middle and channelled.

She found herself looking at a huge tree, which proved to be located in the plaza next door. Then she found herself engulfed in flame. The banners overhead in Gretchen s house started waving around and crackling, and she thought herself lucky not to be burned. She underwent Ernesto s execution. About five hundred years ago he was suddenly accused of heresy, dragged out of his house, and burned to death in front of his family, who were subsequently tossed upon the pyre for good measure.

He was so angry about it, he couldn t leave, said Claire. He didn t have time to finish his business, say goodbye, take care of his family, anything. Nobody knew about his life, nobody cared about how he died. He kept trying to fly away but couldn t manage it.

This also explained why he was following me around. He been using Gretchen for a channel to tell his story, but I d had my own artistic agenda and wouldn t comply. He was probably so pissed about me painting cemetary shadows instead of him that he combusted my altar to get my attention.

Finally, Claire thinks, she and Veronica managed to convince him that they were witnesses to his life and his death, and that he didn have to be angry any more. It took about two and a half hours. They think that he finally flew up, a great light came, and peace descended upon the house. They burned a candle for two days afterward.

Gretchen finally went back to Canada at the end of August. I didn t charge her for the exorcism, but she tried to bill me for rent and phone bills during the months I was in exile; also Western Union fees and general doing-business- with-crazy-people tax. The stairs stay quiet, there have been no more fires, and my friends visit me again.

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